Text: Siyabonga Sithole
Photograph: Supplied

Four stage productions sourced from the country’s leading emerging theatre makers were recently short-listed and work-shopped ahead of the 26th edition of the much loved theatre development festival, Zwakala Festival.

These stories from a dynamic group of young writers, directors and actors are currently going through their last sets of rehearsals. Even though, only one of the plays will emerge the winner of the festival, being in the run for the big prize is for any young theatre maker an enviable accolade on its own.

The pioneering community theatre festival, designed to give new voices a platform to showcase their talents was recently revamped in order to attract quality theatre makers whose stories reflect the demographics, cultures and traditions of South Africa’s rich national and idiosyncratic heritage. The festival remains a leading institutional giant, and as the leader of similar initiatives it stands head above the rest with its developmental template having been replicated by other festivals in other provinces.

Speaking to Culture Review ahead of the Zwakala Festival finale, Market Theatre’s artistic director, James Ngcobo said the reduction of Zwakala from a large scale developmental role to a province driven developmental role is meant to accelerate excellence, which is why he and his team have heard to make some adjustments, that include the appointment of a Zwakala Festival director, among other things.

Furthermore, the festival funded through the Department of Arts and Culture’s Arts Incubator Programme has had to forego its past format and size to a more clearly focussed institution that attracts quality stories in order to cope with the needs of the industry while still living up to its mandate as a strategic community development programme aimed at discovering and grooming young artists from under-developed and under-resourced communities.”

  1. With Zwakala Festival celebrating 26 years this year, how would you describe this year's edition and what are some of the new innovations that have filtered through to the festival this year?

    We had to be very pragmatic with the financial climate that led us to taking a decision that Zwakala had to be trimmed, it was always this massive festival when the funding was still national but now the funding has gone quite provincial so ours is to serve the province of Gauteng and in that we have reduced Zwakala and the part of reducing it also means that we will escalate on its excellence because then the mentors will be able to spend a lot of time with the young directors in the young play rights.

  2. In your opinion what sets these young people apart as they have been short-listed from across the country and have made the top four cut?

    It is always about the work that young people pitch to us, sometimes you go and watch a piece and feel that it is an idea that is still at its beginning phase but we find some ideas that the narrative is clear, the characters are clear, the young play right or young directors they just need to be mentored to make the collision of all the biographs in the story make sense and make the story make sense. The young directors that have been chosen now as the full directors have given us exactly that.

  3. What has stood out for you and your team in as far as the talent and the stories are concerned?

    What was really quite beautiful as we went around looking at groups was a clear understanding there’s an unbelievable hunger from to tell stories that are part of what they see every day, what they experience every day and Zwakala has always been a gateway to allowing young people to tell stories that touch them in their everyday life.

  4. What can those anticipating the showdown expect from this year's finalists?

    They must expect a way where we will be exhibiting what we call The Market Theatre intervention into those works. As I said we take them from the townships we then work on them by the time we present them to the audience you can tell and can definitely see there’s been a lot of thought that has been put in to the work.

  5. What is the job of Zwakala and how does it help the local industries?

    The job of Zwakala is to expose the young who do not have a lot of opportunities where they are at. For us is to go and pluck them from those areas and give them space and make them experience what it feels like to put on a work in a professional space.

  6. What advice do you have for those who have not made the cut, but submitted their production, stories to the festival?

    Throughout the years we had groups that have entered Zwakala and never won and you find that they come back next year and win.

  7. In making Zwakala the premium and biggest festival, what changes have you had to introduce to ensure the festival attracts and continues to pave a way for quality products?

    I have decided for this year to appoint an artistic director for the Zwakala festival and we will choose one every year and that is geared towards the freshness of it and this artistic director works very closely with me. This year it is the guy called Themba Mkhoma, his job is also to monitor the job that is done by the mentors and so that’s what I am trying to this year to see what happens when we have the central person that everyone reports to.

  8. What does the winner stand to win as part of the prize?

    The show that wins will be given a run of their play at The Market Theatre.

  9. What else needs to be done to unearth talent in our communities?

    What needs to be done is to get people with the know-how to go work with young creatives and help them horn their voices.

  10. With such a colourful and success those who have come before the 2018 finalists, what advice do you have for the top 4?

    Its hard work, there’s nothing that beats hard work. I always believe you have to break your back and work on something that is an extension of your passion without that there is lethargy, there is work that does not excite an audience.

  11. What sets Zwakala from similar programmes and initiatives?

    Couple of programmes were inspired by Zwakala such as the John Kani and Ramolao Makhene it has inspired a lot of this initiatives and the fact that it is linked to The Market Theatre ‘s history and The market ethos of mentoring the young.